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Contributing to the understanding of veterans in the UK: the Veteran DNA

The public often consumes imbalanced representations of veterans, with the narrative of those who suffer pervading over examples of those who achieve great success.  Several studies have sought to improve the understanding of skills transfer out of military service.  The majority of veterans have significant skills and resources that contribute to society; as MP Philip Dunne suggested, the Ministry of Defence could be “one of the largest providers of skilled workers joining the civilian workforce in the UK”.  This article, based on primary research, attempts to organise these skills, traits and resources to introduce a new concept of ‘Veteran DNA’ based upon the theory of positive psychological capital

Are veterans skills challenging to translate? 

Lord Ashcroft’s ‘Veterans’ Transition Review’ claimed that “people wildly overestimate the problems suffered by Service Leavers and veterans”.  The majority of veterans have skills, particularly soft skills, which employers value but are very hard to train.  Translating these soft skills is challenging because they can be intangible, difficult to represent, and “difficult to write down on a CV”.  VeteransWork, a collaboration of business and charity organisations, published a report in 2016 that recognised the potential of ex-service personnel. The report identified eight characteristics that are needed for the workforce of the future: leadership, teamwork, social-perceptiveness, flexibility, decision-making ability, resilience, critical thinking, and an ability to work in a fast-paced changing environment, traits veterans were found to regularly exhibit.  Similarly, a 2018 Telegraph report found that organisations that have employed veterans in the UK—such as National Rail, Barclays, Rentokil, Amazon and Boeing—regularly speak of the transferable skills and attributes that former soldiers can bring to a role.  However, the VeteransWork report identified that 60% of businesses would not recruit someone without industry-specific experience.  This is one example showing veteran skills are poorly understood, and work needs to be done to eliminate “the unspoken discrimination against service personnel”.

Expanding Capital for Competitive Advantage, Luthans 2004

The research that serves as the basis of this article did not set out to challenge the narrative on veterans in the UK, or codify ‘Veteran DNA’, but sought to understand the Army’s contribution to the social mobility of its personnel.  The research consisted of ten in-depth interviews and 294 survey responses. The sample population consisted of regular British Army Veterans from a range of cap-badges and ranks. The method reviewed their pre, during and post-Army experiences and attempted to provide a snapshot of the potential data that the MOD could gather on its personnel. 

The interviews focused upon exploring the Army’s contribution to social and human capital, which led to an area of enquiry called positive psychological capital.  Positive psychological capital sits within a framework from Professor Fred Luthans, a retired US Army officer, called “expanding capital for advantage”.  Luthans’ framework links together four types of capital and defines them using four simple questions: economic capital as what you have;  human capital as what you know; social capital as who you know and positive psychological capital as who you are.  The coding of the interviews identified thirteen themes which span the four types of capital in Luthans’ framework.  The framework is introduced here, as it may represent a way to more efficiently translate veteran skills and resources, linking conversations on experience, networks, and traits into a structure.  

Could positive psychological capital be the missing link in communicating veterans’ skills?

Psychological capital is a critical part of the framework and could be the missing link that will assist in the broader societal understanding of the soft-skills veterans bring to employment.  

Positive psychological capital, or PsyCap, is defined as the positive and developmental state of an individual as characterised by high hope, self-efficacy, resilience and optimism (HERO).  Luthans identified the concept in a 2013 paper about the perceived metamorphosis of prison guards.  While Luthans has not explicitly linked military service and an abundance of positive psychological capital, his research suggests that the components of PsyCap are traits capable of being developed.  His work ultimately looked at what he refers to as psychology’s two forgotten missions: making people’s lives more productive and worthwhile and actualising human potential.  This same re-focusing attempt has been made in the veteran’s community (through VeteransWork and efforts by Rt Hon Johnny Mercer) to focus the narrative on the positive majority and publicising their potential.  Anonymised comments from this research will be used to demonstrate the suggested association with Luthans’ theory of positive

Are veterans hopeful?  

Hope is not a term used frequently in a military setting; it suffers from a stereotypical attachment of sounding a little passive and at odds with the active military “can-do” approach.  A more salient definition of hope comes from psychologist Charles Synder as “a positive motivational state based on an interactively derived sense of successful agency, goals and pathways”.  People with high hope are driven to accomplish their goals by their sense of agency, which provides them with an internalised determination and willpower to invest the energy necessary to achieve their goals.  This drive is brought to life here, with the comments of Fred, a veteran interviewee, who states that even if he does not have all the answers, he will overcome the obstacles and achieve: 

“I’m able to go away and make things happen.  I’m resilient and learn quickly.  If I went into something unfamiliar yeah yes I’d struggle to start with, but within a few weeks, I’d dig in and read books and try to understand. I’d make it happen.”

Dave, an-ex ranker, who wanted to become an Army lawyer and completed his law degree through the Open University only to find that the Army was no longer running the in-house scheme when he qualified.  He did not give up and went on to become an ETS officer:

“Unfortunately once I’d actually finished a degree the scheme ceased and was no longer available. But by that point, I knew I wanted to commission and so switched my focus.”

Dave’s story exemplifies his ability to pursue goals but also generate alternative paths when obstacles hinder plans.  Chris, an ex-Parachute regiment soldier, sums up in his interview how he believes that his Army service gave him “both the confidence and competence to shape a plan and follow through with it”.  He is now a successful business owner at 25 and believes that:

“I feel like the training and, and the sort of environment, how they built you up to develop into aspiring to the bigger things in life because you’ve got that self-assurance and you can handle it.  I feel like the Army pushed me.” 

According to Luthans, the impact of hope is well established in clinical, educational, and athletic applications, but the research on the relationship between hope and work outcomes is just emerging.  The suggestion from this research is that veterans are hopeful and optimistic, and believe that the Army has contributed to their approach. 

A still from Karamarama’s new campaign: The Army has claimed to build confidence that lasts a lifetime, but does it also build hope, optimism and resilience?

Confidence can be developed, but does it last a lifetime?

“I’m happy to talk to stakeholders in any audience. I think that I’m very confident.”

Fred, ex-RLC states when asked whether he resonated with the 2020 Army recruiting campaign #confidencethatlastsalifetime.  Karamarama, the advertising company that came up with the campaign, wanted to “shine a light on the unique and long-lasting sense of confidence earned in the Army, in contrast to the quick hits of confidence that fade fast in the modern world”.  They identified that Army confidence was developed “through strong bonds and support from within in the Army, unique training and the achievements reached along the way”.  In this research, 97% of the survey respondents believed that the Army has positively contributed, to some extent, in the development of their confidence, supporting the market research of Karamarama.  This is further demonstrated in survey responses collected for this research:

“The Army gave me the confidence to be the best form of me.  I have outperformed my siblings, who are marginally older than I and went through the same schooling.” 

Psychologist Albert Bandura and others have clearly shown through research and subsequent application in the workplace that confidence can be developed and that there is a relationship between confidence and work-related performance.  This research suggests that this relationship may extend further to include a link to social mobility. 

Do positive patterns of adaptation and perspective breed resilience in veterans?

“You know that whatever you face, that it is not going to be as bad as the worst day you’ve had in the past, so you’ve got that confidence in the bank.”

The comment above from Melissa demonstrates a level of mental resilience and resolve common in military personnel.  Child-psychologist Ann Masten has defined resilience as “a broad conceptual umbrella, covering many concepts related to positive patterns of adaptation in the context of adversity”.  Positive patterns of adaptation can be seen in abundance in this research.  As the statement from Chris shows:

“When I was up at two o’clock in the morning writing business plans I always thought to myself, well at least you’re not in a trench somewhere, with no sleep and a ridiculous amount of weight around on your back. So I think that perspective of hard work carried me, a messaging telling me that you need to stick out.  It’s been a lot worse for you.  And that makes me feel quite resilient.” 

Or from Collin:

“[Army Service], it gives you resolve.  I’m now working at a desk, and it is literally just work, no one is going to lose a leg.  It puts things in perspective; it makes you measured.”

According to author Viktor Frankl, humour is “another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation.”  Little research has been conducted into so-called ‘squaddie humour’, but it seems there is something in the ability to laugh in the darkest of times that makes people incredibly resilient.  My research has found that veterans feel resilient and believe that their Army employment has contributed to their resilience.   

Does military service affect optimism?

Optimism is an explanatory style of good and bad events in terms of permanence and pervasiveness, with optimists interpreting bad events as only temporary; a state that can be developed or learned.  Alex explains how he refers to life challenges optimistically as a result of his military experience:

“It’s a resolve that I can fall back and say to myself, no, it can’t be that bad, and it won’t last forever. It’s okay.  I know that I’ve got a depth of experience.”

Or Louise, who states that she has “a more positive outlook on life as a result of my army service”.  Army personnel are trained to be anything but helpless, to try and overcome obstacles and achieve.  Optimism can make someone predisposed to seeing only the positives when negatives exist, as outlined in the Good Operation report arguing military personnel frequently suffer from optimism bias.  While the question of how much optimism is a good thing is not covered here, it does appear that military service positively affects optimism: 97% of surveyed personnel reporting that they believed that the Army had made a positive contribution to their optimistic outlook. 

Could psychological benefits become a commonly accepted by-product of service? 

This article proposes that Luthans work on ‘expanding capital for competitive advantage’ is one lens to explain ‘the Veteran DNA’; looking at what veterans have, what and who they know, and who they are.  Karamarama also found in their research some unexpected psychological benefits of Army life.  The senior planner at Karamarama, explains:

“The basis of the concept came from speaking to soldiers who talked about the strong sense of confidence that came from the bonds of support they forged, the encouragement they received from their peers and leaders, as well as the power of mental resilience training, a programme every soldier goes through to learn essential psychological skills.  These were different, unexpected benefits we found at the heart of Army life”.

One day in the future, these psychological benefits might be commonly accepted as by-products of service, providing balance to the “mad, bad and sad” narrative.   Further evidence is required to measure the Psycap of military personnel to back up the anecdotal evidence that UK veterans have more than their civilian peers.  It is likely that the investment in capital for advantage will manifest itself differently across the spectrum of veterans, which needs further exploration.

For less than 3% of survey respondents in this research, military service was not a positive experience. Whether the adaptations from adversity are a valuable exchange for service life fits within a larger conversation on the role of the military and recruitment practices, which is beyond the scope of this blog, save to acknowledge that these are conversations that continually need to be had.  A wider piece of research that is delivered using non-electronic means may capture those who do not have regular internet access, such as the prison and homeless community and is suggested as a piece of further research. 

This research focused solely on Regular Army veterans, though Reserve Army, Regular and Reserve RAF, and RN veterans will likely have a similar chunk of ‘Veteran DNA’.  Given the backdrop of COVID 19 and the heroic work of many other individuals, it is also probable that other organisations will have their own set of skills and attributes imprinted on their personnel, worthy of its own research.


LCB is a student at King’s College London (KCL) researching the impact of employment in the British Army on social mobility.  The research, working with Veterans, is trying to identify whether service personnel are ‘unstuck’ from their parents and if they are what activities, if any, are perceived to make a contribution.  Comments, questions, alternative perspectives would be greatly appreciated.  The opinions expressed within this article are the author’s own, and unless stated do not reflect wider Army or Defence policy.

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